As I arrive at Highland Base by helicopter in August, the main hotel appears in the distance as a jagged sliver of blond wood dropped into a sprawling expanse of glacial mountainside. On approach, the gravel parking lot is filled with stacks of camping gear and hulking 4x4s on massive, knobby tires; preposterously fluffy Icelandic sheep amble past A-frame cabins that dot the surrounding hills. Welcome to Shangri-la for the hard-core adventurer—especially one who still appreciates all the high-touch comforts of a luxury resort.
The air taxi came courtesy of the Retreat at Blue Lagoon, the five-star wellness destination perched alongside the country’s famously turquoise geothermal pond; Highland Base, which soft-launched in July, joins the same portfolio. Located in the kaleidoscopically hued Icelandic highlands, the new property couldn’t feel more temperamentally estranged from its spa-centric sibling: While the unofficial uniform of the Retreat is a robe and slippers, Highland Base is awash in hiking boots and muddy day packs. Yet visitors will recognize the former in the design language of the latter, all softly lit stone, wood, and wool accented in every shade of matte black. And here, as at the Retreat, silence rules: There are no televisions to be found. But then, soaking in the suite’s balcony hot tub with a looming view of Hofsjökull, Iceland’s third-largest glacier, you’ll hardly find yourself missing Netflix.
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Nor will you wonder why Iceland is the hottest destination of the moment—there’s simply no place like it on Earth. Imagine if Ireland, Alaska, Finland, and the Moon were all a four-hour drive from one another and you’ll begin (but only just) to get a sense of the place and its countless adventuring possibilities. This is time-travel tourism, a walk through the world as it appeared 10,000 years ago, steaming and smoking, still hot to the touch. It’s a country roughly the size of Colorado but with a lower population density than Suriname.
“Iceland finally became a five-star destination with the entry of the Edition in Reykjavík and the Retreat before that, followed by three Michelin-starred restaurants in Dill, Óx, and now Moss,” says Jennifer Schwartz, of custom-travel specialist Authentic Explorations. “A variety of our clients are attracted to the Icelandic highlands, from adventure seekers to authors looking for inspiration to families in love with the arctic fox, the only indigenous land mammal on the island. Or just anyone looking for some time to really unplug and get off the grid.”
Built on the site of a beloved former ski resort at Kerlingarfjöll, Highland Base is prime real estate (and the sole high-end destination in the region) for everything from Nordic ski touring to ice caving to snowmobiling to cliff rappelling to lung-cauterizing hiking—one popular route takes you up a mountain in the morning and down a glacier in the afternoon—and more, all with easy access to world-class guides and professional coaches. In the evening, recuperate with a swim in the outdoor pool or a dip in the geothermal baths located beneath the 54-key hotel (which includes six standalone lodges) or chat with fellow explorers at the afternoon waffle bar. To accommodate high summer-season traffic, Highland Base also offers seven of the aforementioned A-frame cabins, plus the property’s original building from 1937, which can accommodate groups of up to 15, and a 60-vehicle campsite for more spartan-minded travelers.
“Some people are wary of the highlands becoming more accessible,” says Róbert Marshall, a former member of the Icelandic parliament whose company, Outsiders, provides many of the guiding services for Highland Base. “But I’m all for it. Once people see this land, and feel a connection to it, they can’t help but care what happens here. They become committed to helping it remain special.”
It has long been an option to rent a villa in the area—Authentic Explorations will situate you in a local billionaire’s personal abode along with staff and guides requisite to any itinerary, which Schwartz says she does around 50 times per year, with even more bookings expected in 2024—but Highland Base offers something a private buyout can’t: locals. The recent trend in luxury travel has moved toward ever-smaller, more intimate, and altogether more cloistered journeys, but that would be a mistake here. This most remarkable country has produced a most remarkable culture and people: plainspoken, robustly capable, quick to joke and laugh, each one seemingly a born traveler and so imbued with a wanderer’s innate sense of hospitality. If you can experience just one thing while in Iceland—well, see the vast, multicolored highlands, a sweeping extraterrestrial landscape of rust-colored rhyolite and black basalt mountains streaked neon green with moss. But be sure to also meet some locals along the way. It would be a less wondrous trip without them.
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